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U.S. cities can save billions with green, resilient design, says report

A financial case for green roofs, solar panels, and permeable pavement


Sustainability has become a buzzword for urban designers and environmental advocates. A new report released yesterday stresses that making it a de facto policy for U.S. cities would be a cost-effective design solution that could save millions, and even billions, of dollars.

Co-authored by Greg Kats and Keith Glassbrook, Delivering Urban Resilience looked at the ecological and financial advantages that would come from promoting co-called “smart surfaces,” such as as green roofs, solar panels, and permeable and porous pavement, in urban areas.

Using three different cities as case studies—El Paso, Texas, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.—the researchers examined how adding these features can lower excess heat and improve water quality and stormwater management, all costly environmental issues exacerbated by climate change. For the first time, researchers assembled an integrated cost-benefit analysis for these strategies using insight from city partners, epidemiologists, and tech and energy experts.

Climate change and the heat island effect will lead to increasingly warm temperatures in our cities.

The results were promising, and suggest these adaptations should be seen less as a good idea and more as a necessary, and prudent, investment. The analysis showed that each of the cities studied would realize significant savings if they embraced these changes: El Paso would save $540 million, Washington, D.C., would save $1.8 billion, and Philadelphia would save $3.5 billion. These figures already factor in the cost of making significant adjustments and investments to add new, green infrastructure (the report puts the cost of a smart surface program in D.C. at $838 million, for example).

Adopting the entire suite of smart, resilient solutions would save cities significant money on energy, water, and infrastructure repairs, due to increased resilience. Cooling technologies and adaptions would cut regional energy bills and reduce smog, and the benefits to health and livability would compound over time.

The findings underlined the threat that climate change poses to urban areas, which, due to the heat island effect and rising temperatures, will suffer increasingly uncomfortable summers. The report notes that these changes, if adopted, would also prevent an expected loss of significant summer tourism revenue for the cities studies. Factoring in the tourism revenue that could be saved by these smart surfaces would revise the total savings estimates for both D.C. and Philadelphia to $4.9 billion and $8.4 billion, respectively.

The changes that come from city-wide adoption would also provide more proportional benefits to citizens living in low-income areas. Due to lack of trees and greenery, and the higher likelihood of living in or near areas covered in dark, impervious surfaces, these residents suffer more from summer heat, air pollution, respiratory illness, heat stress, and high health costs than the population at large. A previous study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that, in U.S. cities, African Americans and Hispanics are 51 percent and 21 percent more likely, respectively, to live in high heat risk urban areas than non-Hispanic white Americans.

While energy savings are often seen as a significant benefit, mitigating rising temperatures can have a profound impact on health care costs. A 2017 report by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health, representing 11 major medical societies such as the American Medical Association, found that “climate change is already causing problems in communities in every region of our nation.”

The report was released yesterday in Washington D.C. at Capitol Crossing, a new development seeking LEED certification. The researchers collaborated with 15 organizations, including the U.S. Green Building Council, American Institute of Architects, the National League of Cities, the National Housing Trust, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and The JPB Foundation.